Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Romesh Gunesekera’s “Roadkill” was originally published in the December 2, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.
Romesh Gunesekera, in both his story, “Roadkill,” and in his interview with Deborah Treisman, speaks of the effects of a long war, and of the survivors’ conflicting urges: to bury the past on the on hand or to inquire into it on the other.
He is speaking, of course, about the long civil war in his homeland. Sri Lanka suffered a twenty-seven year civil war when the minority Tamils attempted to secede. This war was brutal on both sides, and was only concluded in 2009. Gunesekera speaks about the small window available now for writers to record the aftermath.
In his interview, he mentions complicity, and in his story, silence is a character. In both those regards, this story is partner to Colm Toibin’s “Summer of ‘38.” Michael Ondaatje’s “Anil’s Ghost” also addressed the buried truths of the Sri Lankan civil war. For what will apparently be a book of linked stories, Gunesekera chooses a taxi driver as his speaker and he uses a style more initially accessible than Ondaatje. I welcome that accessible style when diving into a complicated country with a complicated political situation.
Vasantha, a taxi-driver, is conveying a rich man and his pregnant wife to the north, where they intend to look at a future home. They stop in an attractive new hotel in Kilinochchi, where until recently only the rubble of the violent war had stood. The assistant hotel manager is a young woman who can kill a rat with a bottle of beer, a woman who seems “to come from . . . somewhere dark and hungry and deep.”
She and Vasantha seem attracted to each other, but they speak as if from opposite sides. Even though she fails to conceal the scar that is sometimes visible from beneath her collar, she prefers concealment. She remarks that it is best to “bury the dead and move on.” In contrast, Vasantha is interested in knowing what’s what, saying, “We know so little, and the little we do know we get so muddled.”
“After a war, it is best not to ask about the past.” says the hotel manager. Privately, Vasantha thinks, “That is not true, I thought. After such a calamity, surely one should? How else will we know what really happened?”
In his interview, Gunesekera says people have a tendency “to seek safety in numbness.”
At this point I am reminded of the 1948 story by Vladimir Nabokov, “Symbols and Signs.” In that story, a schizophrenic boy appears to represent the post war — post holocaust reality for an immigrant Jewish family from Russia. Between the losses of the Holocaust and the 20 million deaths Russia suffered in World War II, mute schizophrenia seems an appropriate reaction. Gunesekera’s assistant hotel manager lives in this same nether world of silenced memory.
Vasantha’s story has a lot to recommend it: the post war setting, the unusual country, the taxi driver’s blunt narrative, the haunting assistant hotel manager and her half hidden scar, and the way he uses the images of big cats, the rat, and the little road-killed dog to allude to more than even he is at present able to articulate.